SAN JOSE, Calif. — If you want to be a special education teacher, the San Jose Unified School District has an offer for you: commit to teaching for at least four years, and the district will pay your teaching credential tuition at San Jose State University.

The program is an effort to stem a nationwide shortage of special education teachers, which a recent report said had become a “five-alarm fire.” San Jose Unified’s offer may be the first in the nation, according to officials, to offer such comprehensive support. Besides the tuition and some fees, participants will receive mentorship and an Apple laptop to use during the two-year program.

The district is offering that because the shortage isn’t getting any better, in part thanks to a booming economy and, in Silicon Valley, competition from technology companies vacuuming up workers who might otherwise have considered a career in education, according to Jacqueline Murphy, director of human resources at San Jose Unified.

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“We’re just seeing the gap grow more and more,” Murphy said.

The district is focusing the program on instructional assistants because they already have a feel for a special education teacher’s job, which can be intimidating for new teachers, according to Seth Reddy, San Jose Unified’s director of special education.

“They’re integral to the function to the classroom, and they develop a lot of the skills that are transferable to teaching,” Reddy said.

Teaching credential programs can usually be completed in one or two years. Participants in the inaugural Rise into Special Education program will get their credentials over two years, during which they’ll work at the district while attending classes at San Jose State.

During the first year, they’ll continue working as instructional assistants while attending school. The second year they’ll be intern teachers and they’ll pick up more of the responsibilities, which eventually include being students’ case managers.

Tuition and fees will cost about $20,000 per person, and participants will also be partnered with mentors chosen from among the best special education teachers in the district. In exchange, they will be expected to graduate with their credentials and work at least four years at San Jose Unified. Otherwise, they’ll have to pay back a pro-rated share of their tuition and fee expenses.

District officials hope that by developing their own teachers, they’ll be able to build continuity from year to year — something that’s hard to establish when the district has to rely on substitutes or contractors to fill some special education spots every year.

“We know that instability in school has an effect on student achievement,” said Desiree Carver-Thomas, a researcher with the Learning Policy Institute and a co-author of the report that called the shortage a “five-alarm fire.”

Researchers have found that instability is in part because teachers aren’t able to build and pass along institutional knowledge, build out lesson plans and develop relationships with colleagues, Carver-Thomas said. Generally, efforts similar to what San Jose Unified is doing, known as “grow your own” programs, can also be successful in fostering retention.

“There’s some research that shows that teachers are more likely to continue teaching when they’re in the communities where they grew up or where they’re settled,” she said.

That means people like Doreen Hernandez, who first got hired as an instructional assistant at San Jose Unified when she saw a job opening at her son’s school. She had been an art teacher at one point and always thought about getting her teaching degree, but hadn’t really figured out when to do it, or how to afford it.

“I had thought about it because that’s the logical step, if you’re enjoying your job, to become a teacher,” Hernandez said. “The financial strain is something that was always in the back of my mind, and then here comes this great opportunity.”

Now with her son in ninth grade, she’s going back to San Jose State, where she first got her bachelor’s degree, for her teaching credential. She said the district has been open with her that it’ll be a challenging program but that they’re providing support and mentorship.

“We’re going to be pretty taken care of,” she said, adding that the seven participants are already all in a group text.

Thinking about a career in special education, Hernandez said she’s particularly looking forward to the continuity of having the same students year to year, something that’s not as common with general education classes.

“There’s that relationship that you get to have out of them, you see them grow,” she said. “It’s always exciting to come back the next year and have the same kids come in and hugs, ‘welcome back, how was your summer?'”

© 2019 The Mercury News
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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